There are few locations in the landscape of American sports that evoke as distinct a sense of mediocrity as bowling alleys. As arenas of athletic contest they seem forever doomed to conjure up images of beer-bellied men competing in obscurity inside dingy, decrepit rooms. Bowling alleys have long been the natural environment of lowlifes, misfits, and losers. As such they serve as a perfect setting for the Farrelly brothers — who are always at their best when championing the crude underdogs of life — and in Kingpin the underlying joke running throughout is that anybody with some sense and a few prospects should in no way be investing a significant amount of themselves in bowling. But the directors aren’t simply lampooning this strange world; they’re also paying tribute to its unapologetic griminess. When Roy Munson, one time bowling wunderkind turned destitute conman, discovers that Lancaster Bowl no longer has a men’s room novelty machine for him to supply with florescent condoms, he’s shocked and offended. “And you call this a bowling alley,” he scolds the manager.
The Farrellys gave birth to Kingpin — the most peculiar member of their brood — in 1996, between their breakout hit Dumb and Dumber and their crowning achievement There’s Something About Mary. Fittingly, the movie is like a strong-headed, wayward middle child vying for a share of the attention heaped on its more celebrated siblings. Upon release it flopped at the box-office (Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary combined made over 300 million dollars; Kingpin made just 25 millions dollars) and baffled even critics who had taken a shine to the directors’ previous effort. In fact the movie was such a commercial failure that it prompted the brothers to get as outrageous as they possibly could with There’s Something About Mary in the belief that their careers in movies might soon expire. But over the years Kingpin’s reputation has flourished, and though it has emerged as a cult favorite it merits recognition as on par with the Farrellys’ best.
On the surface Kingpin is easily the most ludicrous movie the Farrelly brothers have ever made. Ben Stiller’s zipper fiasco will forever reign supreme as the directors’ craziest moment, but as a complete narrative Kingpin is in a league of its own. Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson), former Iowa bowling champion, quits the game after losing his hand in a ball return machine and then recruits an Amish ten-pin prodigy (Randy Quaid) to compete in a one million dollar championship tournament. The patent absurdity of it all is sure to have made some studio executives break out in sweat. And yet, despite its overflow of ridiculous elements, Kingpin still finds plenty of space for small, grounded, and understated moments.
Not only is Kingpin the middle entry in the Farrelly brothers’ ‘90s trifecta, but it also occupies territory in the middle period of Bill Murray’s career. By the time Kingpin came around Murray seemed to have matured somewhat out of the sardonic rebel comedian mold that propelled him to fame. While in his 40s he made one definitively great movie (Groundhog Day), some interesting, offbeat projects (Quick Change, What About Bob?), and at least one complete head-scratcher (let’s not get into that).
As Ernie “Big Ern” McCracken, a man who has “clearly done for bowling what Muhammad Ali did for boxing,” Murray delivers one of his best and certainly most unique performances. He’s the maniacal bully of the professional bowling tour, a man so arrogant that his translucent custom made bowling ball has a rose inside of it, and yet so clueless that he thinks a classy drink is a Tanqueray and Tab. It’s hard to believe that only two years later Murray would appear in Rushmore draped in the melancholy weariness that would come to define his characters throughout the following decade. Here he’s pure, grotesque egotism.
During the final showdown of the championship Big Ern struts around the lanes with a swagger five times that of any Will Ferrell character and with more animalistic showmanship than a WWF wrestler. Even his combover looks like it’s lost its mind and wants to pick a fight.
Sadly, movies like Kingpin don’t really seem to get made anymore. The exuberant goofiness of Dumb and Dumber and the good-natured vulgarity of There’s Something About Mary still survive healthily in recent releases. But the meandering, throw everything at the wall sensibility of the Farrelly brothers’ second outing appears to have somewhat fallen by the wayside. The tradition does live on through the likes of Will Ferrell and Todd Phillips, but their projects possess a polished sheen that stands in stark contrast to the scuzzy world depicted in movies like Kingpin. The glamour of Vegas in The Hangover is worlds away from the drab bowling alleys of small, rundown cities. And characters like Roy Munson and Big Ern, no matter what they do, even if they win a million dollars, are never going to live the high life. What we don’t see much of anymore are born losers who stay losers — the kind of people the Farrelly brothers hold up as heroes.